Eric Renderking Fisk - March 28th 2008
Some people actually debate about what "Film Noir" means and when the "Film Noir Period" actually began and ended. Some debate that the "First-Best" noir film was "The Maltese Falcon," and the "Last-Best" Film Noir was Mickey Spillane's "Kiss Me Deadly." I'm firmly in that camp and I enjoy writing about those that come in between. Hence - The Fedora Chronicles Hollywood Page...
"Film Noir" refers to the film's darkness in both content and the literal way it was filmed with the subdued lighting and excessive (if not joyful in a maniacal way) use of shadows. The protagonist is always a flawed character who is either very good in a world increasingly gone bad - or is just a regular Joe who's made bad choices that begins his downfall. Film Noir is almost too literal in how it portrays the darkness of a cynical world, where a crime is committed, we find out who did it and the case is solved, but just like in the real world some of those involved are severely punished while others don't... often times, the villain literally does get away with murder. Villains are some times persecuted while the heroes lose through some personal sacrifice or admission of guilt associated with being human like the rest of us - with vices such as lust and desire, obsession or addiction. Film Noir almost always filmed in glorious black and white and are usually tragedies of the Shakespearian kind - exchanging Old-English bard-speak with Jazz -Era slang.
The Film Noir Style was born out of an era of an uncertain future when the world was running amok with fascism in Europe and Asia, war or the rumors of war, and new technology that brought the word "Atomic" into every-man's daily language. The thread of nuclear annihilation was coupled with the fact that men had been replaced at the work-place by the women they went to war to defend, and the "Red Menace" of communism became the modern equivalent of the Salem Witch-Hunts from the 1690's.
"Laura" fits perfectly into the mold of "Film Noir," it's about murder, obsession, unrequited love, class-envy and social status... with maybe just a hint of the potential for necrophilia.. [Continued after this trailer...]
Who's Crazy Enough To Fall In Love With A Dead Woman?
Usually, the word "Creepy" and "thoroughly Entertaining" don't go together in a positive review for a movie. Unless it's film noir. "Laura" is almost perfect and essential Film Noir, enjoyable while at the same time making you question your humanity and what it means to be sane.
Dana Andrews (just off his prior roll in "The Best Years Of Our Lives") is Detective Lt. Mark McPherson, a police officer working the murder case of a woman that apparently everyone loved. In a series of flashbacks during McPherson's interviews of the suspects, we discover what kind of woman she was, or what type of woman everyone else THOUGHT she was. You can tell a lot about a woman by the company she keeps and the characters she surrounds her self with...
Through the words of others we discover that Gene Tierney's "Laura" is the type of woman inspires men to be in love... with the idea of being in love. She's strikingly beautiful and successful with out being aloof, she's approachable while being painfully honest while suffering neither fools or rude people. She's the reason why one up-tight elitist snob lightens up, and why a playboy-opportunist could change his ways and commit to one woman... yet both of whom are the prime suspects of her murder.
Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb is the uptight elitist who has his own radio show and likes to pontificate about what's wrong in the world and how we would all be better off if we just listened to him and conformed to his Victorian world-view. He also obsesses about murder - his favorite crime... There's something about this painfully thin guy that struck me as being 'soft in the head' and 'light in the loafers,' he appreciated what Laura taught him how not to be judgmental. Laura tried to teach Lydecker that the world would be a better place if we tried to be more beautiful on the inside to the same extent as we try to be so on the outside... essentially saying that he would do well to take his own advice and actually be the type of man he talks about being in his columns and on the radio. Lydecker love for her is more of having Laura more as a trophy and less as a lover and a wife... he would be validated if only she could love him. Things get out of hand when she doesn't love him back.
Shelby Carpenter as played by Vincent Price is the obvious "prime suspect," a womanizer, playboy who leaches off of successful women while being incapable of fidelity or faithfulness. You just hope this guy is the real killer! It's Vincent Price! One of the masters of Macabre! You half expect him to confess to killing her because he had to construct a bride for a monster he created in his off hours! Alas, that's not the case... there is no secret lab in Manhattan this time. Mr. Price is a sophisticated and upwardly mobile opportunist who instinctively knows which wine should be paired with what meal and which fork to grab with what dish and knows what sweet nothings to whisper into the ears of women.
Just like the other two men, and everyone else... McPherson falls in love with Laura, too. Sadly, she's already dead obviously, he takes on this strange fascination with her and her portrait that hangs over the mantle. No, really? What Advertising Executive do you know who has a huge portrait of themselves hanging anywhere in there home? Forget "There's Something About Laura," how about "There's something incredibly narcissistic about Laura," isn't there? To me, there's something really insecure about Laura, she's a beautiful woman and men are attracted to her, but the painting in her apartment screams volumes about her self doubts.
McPhereson eventually spends the night in her apartment, leaving nothing touched... at first. Here's a police detective that REALLY gets into his work! Living at the scene of a crime... Eventually goes so far as to go through her things like her drawers and closets and even falls a sleep in one of her chairs in her living room, drinking her liquor, only to be waken up by...
... let's just say that the person who wakes him makes his obsession a little less creepy, but not by much.
Otto Preminger crafts this film in much the same way Alfred Hitchcock would if he filmed this script... just as we almost understand Jimmy Stewart's character "Det. John 'Scottie' Ferguson" in "Vertigo" and his obsession with Kim Novak's "Madeleine Elster" character who died... maybe. I would even like to think for a minute that "Vertigo" was inspired by "Laura" because of the plot lines are too similar. I digress...
We almost accept McPherson's obsession with Laura. It's really not cool, but because Laura is one of the most desirable women and men just couldn't help themselves when she was alive, despite an insecurity or two. Or, maybe it's that vulnerability that makes her so attractive. Since there are so many men 'obsessed' with Laura while she lived it stands to reason that someone was bound to fall in love with her after she died and who better then the man investigating her murder.
In a normal world, not a film noir one... this would be cause for someone to put McPherson in for an evaluation... then again this is the same world where a woman has a giant portrait of herself on display in her apartment...
"Laura" is as close as one can get to a "perfect" classic movie and as a Suspense-Mystery drama. The acting and dialog keep what could have been a tedious melodrama moving along with tension, the cinematography with the use of contrasting light and shadow rivals "Citizen Kane." This is as close to the best of it's class, up to par with other essential classics from the era and in many ways it's superior to movies made now.
But is this good "Film Noir?"
I'm on the fence on that aspect. There are some dark aspects to "Laura" that bring it close to The Film Noir Genre, but with it's almost happy ending, all the loose ends tied and the hero walking away with the prize and the win, it's hard to say if this motion picture belongs in this classification or not. It has quirky characters, everyone in this movie (with the exception of maybe two background players) has weird idiocentricities and fetishes that makes you wonder if nobody is immune to a little mental illness. The movie allows you to think for a short while that we're all a little nuts, we all have some aspect of our personality that are outside the main-stream. And if you over look those aspects of this film you'll believe that if everyone is not normal, then not normal makes us all pretty much the same... and then the definition of "normal" simply seizes to exist.
"Laura" is a film that will get under your skin and will remain in the back of your mind a while. It's the perfect movie for vintage aficionados and fedora-junkies who want to see some good lids sported about while a murder is solved with some questions raised about what morality means and how arbitrary concepts such as "Good" And "Evil" can be if you're willing to talk yourself into anything.